Chekhov is so exact in his expressions and yet his plays are wide open to interpretation. In the opening moments of the current Southwark Playhouse production I found myself wondering when I’d last seen “The Seagull”, arguably the most famous and familiar play from this great Russian playwright. And although I soon recollected it had been at Oxford University, a student production, the mood and vision of this very distinct play had then been entirely different.
This is a new and ultra-fresh version by Anya Reiss, the Royal Court’s most promising young writer. Watching this complex play I felt ashamed that at twenty-four, I struggle with so many of Chekhov’s innuendos and yet Anya, of a similar age to me, is able to fully interpret the Russian text, modernising the story and injecting it with attitude and zest.
The cast has obviously gelled well and the central protagonists; Joseph Drake as Konstantin and Lily James as Nina show particular teamwork and natural chemistry on stage together, which help make the production instantly believable. A graduate of Guildhall’s tough post-graduate acting course, James is addictive to watch, dancing around the stage, coquettishly fiddling with her dress whilst smiling endearingly with innocent eyes. Drake is impulsive and dramatic as the young Konstantin desperate to be taken seriously, he plays this complex role with insight and intuition. Matthew Kelly is also surprisingly good, and only a little too camp as Dorn, and Anthony Howell makes an appropriately icy and isolated Trigorin.
The Seagull is a tale of unrequited love and anguish, and the script needs little else to succeed. Jean Chan’s set is simple but effective with the characters rearranging the minimal props and furniture for each scene. Russell Bolam’s direction seems to bring the best out of the cast who respond naturally and intelligently throughout. It runs with great fluency and I found my concentration remained focused.
This Southwark creative team revive this classic Chekhov with charm and spirit, offering a touching account of Anya Reiss’s relevant and refreshing new interpretation.